It is a brief period of time in which to decide such an important thing. For just three days next week, nominations will open for candidates in the 2014 Rectorial election. A week of campaigning will follow, including just over 48 hours of voting. By Friday 7th November, it will all be over for another three years. You could be forgiven for not having a clue what I’m talking about. Allow me to explain.
During the course of the next fortnight, we, the students of St Andrews, will have the opportunity to select our next rector. This person, who can neither be a student nor a member of staff, will be our cheerleader, advocate and representative at the highest levels of the University. They will do the job for three years; most students will only elect a rector once during their time here. They will chair the University Court, the top governing body of the University, and ensure that student opinions are heard. They will hold regular surgeries, like an MP, where students can seek support and air grievances. And among, other endeavors, they will hand out grants to students as patron of the Rector’s Fund.
The role of the rector is also yet another of our quirky traditions, like the PH cobblestones or Raisin Weekend (whatever you might now think of that). Only the four ancient Scottish universities and Dundee maintain the tradition, and the representation it gives us as students is something to be cherished.
That’s why it is so important that the choice we make in the next fort- night is the right one. Get it right and we will benefit; get it wrong and we have wasted a valuable opportunity.
Take the University of Glasgow. Typically, there are two kinds of rectors: political or cultural figures whose appointment is intended to make a statement; and ‘working’ rectors who, while perhaps less controversial or exciting, are realistically more likely to turn up and do the job properly. In February students at Glasgow plumped for the first type and elected Edward Snowden, the former NSA spy who now lives in Russia. The campaign to get him voted in called it “a unique opportunity to show our gratitude to a brave whistle-blower”.
It’s a strong statement, no doubt about that, and Glasgow does have a history of similar gestures. But I hope we in St Andrews will be more pragmatic. I don’t know whether anyone is planning to run to make a political point, but I do know that electing such a person would be squandering our once-in-three-years chance to gain support and influence. Edward Snowden isn’t going to come along once a month and run surgeries.
What makes a good rector? Opinions will be divided as to the record of Alistair Moffat, the incumbent. To some he’s a cultural hero, a leading Scottish historian who ran the Edinburgh Fringe for five years and chaired the broadcaster STV. He helped birth the Fellowship of St Andrews, and established the Rector’s Fund to support students on internships.
To others he’s the questionable figure behind BritainsDNA, a genetics testing company that once claimed to have discovered the grandson of Eve and nine descendants of the Queen of Sheba. He issued legal threats against scientists at UCL, was the subject of a complaint upheld by the BBC, and has repeatedly threatened legal action against this very student newspaper. In April 2013 the University concluded his conduct regarding UCL had been “contrary to the principles of academic freedom”.
So what should we look for in next week’s candidates? JK Rowling is tipped to run – but does she hope to succeed on fame alone? If so, we may as well find another exiled whistle-blower. Chloe Hill, last year’s Association president and a former rector’s assessor for Mr Moffat, is also a bookie’s favorite – but will the University take her seriously so soon after saying farewell to her as a student?
In light of the last three years, and with an understanding of how serious a role of the rector is, we owe it to ourselves to put the candidates through some serious scrutiny. This is the responsibility not just of the media but of us all as individual students. There will be debates, speeches and manifestos. Pay attention, ask questions and think critically about your vote. We need only pay attention for a brief time. It’s worth the effort.